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Child malnutrition kills 3.5 million

21st January 2008

The international community has responded poorly to child malnutrition in the world's poorest countries, with more than three million children dying annually from poor nutrition around the world, according to a recent study.

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The problem of lack of food, or poor quality food, starts in the womb, experts say, and yet a quarter of the deaths could be prevented with simple, low-cost changes like the promotion of breastfeeding and vitamin A supplements.

Children who are malnourished suffer cognitive impairment, affecting their capacity to learn, and they have much weaker immune systems, making them more vulnerable to disease and early death, experts say.

Published in The Lancet, the report said the majority of undernourished children and mothers are to be found in just 20 countries in Asia and Africa.

Poor nutrition in infancy leads to irreversible damage in later life, according to recent research, and an undernourished mother or infant can lead to irreversible damage -- even if nutrition improves later in childhood

Undernourished children tend to underperform in school, and this reduces their economic potential and perpetuates the poverty cycle.

According to a separate study, there are several measures which could have a big impact on reducing deaths if implemented properly.

Breastfeeding promotion programmes which enourage women to breastfeed for at least six months, together with zinc and vitamin A supplementation, could have a major impact on the problem, cutting deaths and the loss of years to disability by 25%.

Experts say the internation response to child deaths from nutrition has been dysfunctional and fragmented.

Child malnutrition is not as simple as death from starvation, although some children do die in such a way.

But those who survive often suffer from stunted growth and illnesses linked to vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

The spread of infectious diseases through poor sanitation can also lead to diarrhoea, which spurs child mortality.

Professor Zulfiqar Bhutta, Department of Paediatrics and Child Health at Aga Khan University in Pakistan estimated that 1.4 million child deaths annually are caused by a lack of breastfeeding.

He says that less than a third of children under six months in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean receive only breast milk.

And UNICEF nutrition expert Bruce Cogill said the global burden of disease linked to under-nutrition should represent a call to action for the international community, which had poured far more money into other global health issues like HIV/AIDS.

The period from conception to 24 months is crucial for child nutrition, and sets a pattern which cannot be undone easily.

Simon Cousens from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said countries with a high prevalence of under-nutrition should decide which interventions should be given the highest priority, and ensure their active implementation.

The UK-based charity, Save the Children, has warned that a further 3.7 million children in Africa could suffer from malnutrion by 2015 compared with today's figures, and has called on the UK and EU governments to do more to tackle the problem. 

 

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